Social Cognitive Map Research Paper

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In their 1985 study Robert B. Cairns, Jane E. Perrin, and Beverly D. Cairns defined the Social Cognitive Map (SCM) procedure as a peer-report method for identifying social groups of children or adolescents in school settings. The SCM procedure, originated by developmental psychologist Robert Cairns, involves three distinct steps: collecting peer reports of social groups, aggregating those peer reports in a single matrix, and analyzing similarity patterns in the matrix to identify peer groups.

To collect peer reports of groups, each participating youth is asked: “Are there any kids here (at your school/in your classroom) who hang around together a lot?” The question can be posed during an individual interview or with a group administered questionnaire. In either case respondents are encouraged to identify each member of as many groups as they can recall. Sometimes a roster of peers in the setting is provided to facilitate recall, but respondents are never required to classify all peers into groups. Each respondent’s report can be considered the individual’s “social cognitive map” of the setting. These individual social cognitive maps are aggregated into a symmetric matrix containing one row and one column for each individual in the setting, regardless of whether or not the individual provided a report of groups. Off-diagonal cells summarize conominations: For example, the total number of times that individuals i and j were named to the same group is placed in cell c.. . Each cell along the diagonal (e.g., c ) contains the total number of times that an individual was named to any group. Algorithms are applied to the conomination matrix to identify dyads that interact more than one would expect by chance or to identify peer groups. Developmental psychologists typically have identified groups based on similarity in conomination patterns (e.g., intercorrelating the columns of the conomination matrix, then using decision-rules or standard data reduction procedures to identify group structures), but software developed for social network analysis provides a wide range of alternative group-detection algorithms.

The SCM procedure is based on two assumptions: first that there is some degree of consensus among youth regarding peer affiliation patterns, and second that youth are expert participant-observers in peer social networks whose reports have some connection to observable interaction patterns. These assumptions have been validated in several empirical studies. For example, conomination matrices routinely reveal greater than chance levels of agreement among peer respondents; and observational studies document that youth interact with members of their SCM-identified peer groups at rates three to four times higher than with other same-sex classmates.

The SCM procedure focuses on identifying relational ties linking individuals in a setting, which distinguishes it from widely used peer-report methods that focus on measuring the status or behavior of individuals (Cairns 1983). For example aggregating respondents’ reports of peers whom they “like most” and “like least” yields powerful measures of peer acceptance and rejection, respectively; and aggregating respondents’ nominations of peers who match specific behavioral descriptors (e.g., “starts fights”) provides robust measures of aggression. It is possible to derive individual-level measures from the SCM conomination matrix, but the SCM procedure’s most unique feature is its explicit focus on relational ties and structures.

Among methods for assessing relational ties among peers, the advantages and disadvantages of the SCM procedure are best understood in the context of alternative procedures. Direct observations have face validity and can produce dense interaction matrices for analysis, but they are costly to gather and may be impractical among older youth because researchers typically lose access to important settings for peer interaction. Self-reported friendships or social groups provide unique information on subjectively valued relationships, but they are vulnerable to self-enhancement biases and result in missing data when individuals decline to participate. There is little data documenting the validity of teacher and parent reports of youths’ school-based peer relationships.

In this context the SCM approach has several notable strengths: The necessary data is relatively inexpensive to collect; the multi-informant method produces dense conomination matrices that provide a robust basis for applying a wide range of social network analysis tools (Gest, Moody, and Rulison 2007); and the resulting peer group structures capture reliable and valid patterns of relational ties among all members of the network, even those who do not provide individual reports.


  1. Cairns, Robert B. 1983. Sociometry, Psychometry, and Social Structure: A Commentary on Six Recent Studies of Popular, Rejected, and Neglected Children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 29: 429–438.
  2. Cairns, Robert B., Jane E. Perrin, and Beverly D. Cairns. 1985. Social Structure and Social Cognition in Early Adolescence: Affiliative Patterns. Journal of Early Adolescence 5 (3): 339–355.
  3. Gest, Scott D., James Moody, and Kelly L. Rulison. 2007. Density or Distinction? The Roles of Data Structure and Group Detection Methods in Describing Adolescent Peer Groups. Journal of Social Structure 8.

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